John the Baptizer, though in Herod’s prison, has closely followed the ministry of Jesus. He heard from his disciples that Jesus had picked up his sermon on the Kingdom of Heaven and that everywhere he went huge crowds gathered to hear him. He also heard of the many signs, that the paralyzed were healed and able to walk, the blind were given their sight, the lepers were cleansed, and the deaf had their hearing restored. He even heard stories of Jesus raising the dead. All of this news was terribly exciting for John, but he had a question for Jesus. A question that John had to have answered.
So John sends his disciples out to find Jesus and ask the question. When they track Jesus down in a village they find him preaching to a crowds. Jesus sees them and pauses to address them, giving them the perfect opportunity to ask John’s question. “Are the you one who is to come, or should we look for someone else?”
Pretty straight-forward. Pretty bold. John is in prison and he wants to know if Jesus is the Messiah or if he was wrong about him. Except that’s not what John is asking. John is sending Jesus a message in code, and Jesus gets it.
Jesus tells John’s disciples to go back and tell John what they are seeing and hearing. Essentially, Jesus sends them to go tell John the things he has already heard about. Tell him the blind see and the lame walk, people with leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the good news is preached to the poor. Then Jesus ads an odd statement. Tell John “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me”.
Why would Jesus add that?
Why does Jesus add something about falling away? Who would fall away because Jesus confirmed that he is the Messiah? Because Jesus knew that John was not really asking if he was the Messiah, but something else. And to understand the question you have to be familiar with the culture and teaching methods of their day. Great teachers would use a teaching method that involved hints, and the only way you could understand their teaching was if you not only knew the Scriptures, but had wrestled with them. It was a game of sorts with the Text. This is one of the best examples in Scripture.
The Question Within The Question
There are six signs from Isaiah that indicate the Coming One has indeed come. And in his response Jesus lists five of those prophetic signs. The blind receive see (29:18, 35:5), the lame walk (35:6, 61:1), lepers are cleansed (61:1), the deaf hear (29:18, 35:5), and the poor are evangelized (61:1-2). Jesus also mentions raising the dead, which isn’t directly found in the Scriptures, but is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls Fragment (4Q521). All of these things had been done (see Matthew 8-9).
But there was one sign Jesus didn’t mention, the answer to John’s real question. The other sign of the Coming One was that the prisoners would be set free (61:1). In leaving out that sign, Jesus answered John’s question. John would not be set free, but would die in prison. Which explains Jesus’ parting words as He sends the disciples back to John.
Knowing The Text
As I think about this passage, and as I’ve studied the culture of the Hebrews of the time of Jesus, I’m struck by how well Jesus assumed his audience knew the text of the Scriptures. Often times I find myself approaching the Bible as something to check off my to-do list for the day. Yet, Jesus assumes that those listening to (and reading) his words have been immersed in the text to the point of being saturated. Often times I and others describe our relationship with God as being in a dry spell. Perhaps it’s time to get wet and to dive into the Scriptures as if they really were the very words of God.